Image vs. reality: The utter powerlessness of the mayor of Columbia

I thought this was an interesting contrast.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s re-election campaign sent out the above video, showing the mayor standing before a group of cops — the city’s anti-gang unit — and talking tough about how gangs won’t be tolerated (when he’s not talking about reaching out to troubled youth who are all “very talented” and just need a guiding hand, an apparent contradiction that reflects the different constituencies he’s trying to reach).

So there you have an image of a mayor who is in command of the city’s sentinels, pledging to protect us all from crime.

Then, you have what happened in the real world — the reminder last night that the mayor is not in charge of the police department, and has no control over the person who is:

COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia’s mayor and city manager had a public falling out Tuesday, barely seven months into a workplace relationship that critics once decried as too close.

The split occurred over Mayor Steve Benjamin’s proposal to ban city administrators and politicians from active police crime scenes. City manager Teresa Wilson said she took the proposal as a shot aimed to impugn her integrity because of her decision to go to the site of the July 12 arrest of state civil rights leader Lonnie Randolph.

“I don’t care who it is. I’m not going to allow anybody to attack my personal credibility,” Wilson told The State newspaper after Benjamin’s proposal died in a 5-1 vote. The mayor was the only one of the six council members at the meeting to vote in support of his suggestion that would have allowed City Council members to be censured and employees to be disciplined…

Benjamin is fully aware of how powerless he is, the video image from that press conference notwithstanding. In fact, he put out a release about it today:

Serving as your mayor has been the dream of a lifetime and a great personal honor and I have used this office as forcefully as I can to advocate positive improvements in our city.
I’m proud of the progress we are making in building a safer city, creating jobs, improving education and providing a high quality of life for our citizens.
But recent news has helped to demonstrate that the present “weak mayor” system of governance in Columbia is outdated and structurally flawed. Like all Columbians, I’m frustrated by how long it takes to get things done.
Under the current system, I have:
But ultimately, I am limited to a role of advocacy. The Mayor of Columbia has only one vote on a seven-member council and no administrative authority.
It’s time for a change. It’s time to switch to a “strong mayor” form of government.
Columbia has grown to the point that we need a mayor with modern executive authority. The present system muddies the waters of accountability. The time has come to make me and all future mayors accountable to the voters for the quality and efficiency of city government.
That’s why I’ve asked City Council to meet on August 13 and support a referendum that would let the voters decide whether they want a modern strong mayor form of government or whether they want to continue our present system of city management by committee.
My request of City Council is simple: let the voters decide.
Some will argue that we should keep the present committee system. Some will say they don’t want mayors to have executive powers. That’s okay. Let everyone make their case in a public debate to be decided by the people of Columbia.
Surely no one who believes in the founding principles of America would stand in the way of allowing the public to vote on how they choose to be governed.
I hope my colleagues on City Council will join me in giving voters the chance to make their voices heard. And if Council fails to empower the people, then I will stand strongly behind a petition drive to give voters access to the ballot.
If you agree that it’s time for a change, please consider contacting your City Council members. Let them know you support giving the people of Columbia the opportunity to vote on their form of government.
As always, I thank you for your time and consideration.

Steve Benjamin, Mayor
City of Columbia, South Carolina

As you know, I’m completely in agreement with the mayor on this. The executive functions of the city should be in the hands of someone elected by all of the city’s voters. There is simply no accountability under the current system.

But while I’m with him on the main point, I was struck by the irony of his mentioning his desire “to enact policies that remove all hints of politics from law enforcement,” on the same day his campaign is touting video of him posed in front of a row of uniformed cops…


25 thoughts on “Image vs. reality: The utter powerlessness of the mayor of Columbia

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    Yeah, so the mayor can’t crack skulls. The city manager can, and it appears she won the round yesterday!

    Seriously, you’d have to be pretty grandiose to think you could fix a gang problem if only you were a strong mayor….

  2. Silence

    Agree with Kathryn 100%. Having a strong mayor would only serve to make city actions MORE political. Having the council-manager system insulates us a bit from knee-jerk responses to events, and to politically charged actions.
    Can you imagine if we’d had Mayor Cromartie?

  3. Brad Warthen

    Y’all are saying “political” like it’s a bad thing. Common misconception.

    The “political” element of strong mayor isn’t some unfortunate by product. It’s an important reason why we should do it. Right now, no one is POLITICALLY accountable for anything.

    For instance, the guy sitting at the table next to me as I type this — acting chief Santiago — does not currently answer to any elected official. He should.

    1. Silence

      No, he should answer to the Assistant City Manager for Public Safety, because that’s how the organizational chart works.

      1. Mark Stewart

        Who answers to an unelected City Manager who is responsive only to the need to always maintain at least 4 Council votes on any one issue…

  4. Mark Stewart

    Yeah, Silence, the Council-Manager structure also insulates Columbia from progress.

    Maybe Benjamin has demonstrated that he is not the man to be Mayor in the typical sense of the word. However, he see’s the benefit of change for the sake of improvement and the structural change as necessary to “professionalize” the office of Mayor. Columbia could use a lot more of that impulse.

  5. Matt Bohn

    Greenville uses the council-manager system and I’m always hearing about how successful it is as an up and coming city. Why would we want to risk having politics drive the operations of Columbia when we have an non-partisan manager? There’s a reason the Progressives advocated a weak mayor system. Corruption, politics, strong mayors for life and the resulting cronyism are enough reasons alone for not changing to a strong mayor model. I just don’t trust the politicians enough to give one more power. Call me a Hamiltonian, but I also am wary of voters who mindlessly re-elect incumbents time and time again regardless of whatever they’ve done to debauche or disgrace themselves.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      By that logic, the best system would be a constitutional monarchy, with a more or less permanent government of bureaucrats who run things no matter which party controls Parliament.

      For that matter, why even have elections, since y’all don’t want the “politicians” in charge?

      1. Silence

        I see the elected politicians like a corporate board of directors, and the mayor is the chairman. I try to vote for people who are intelligent, wise, and who will make good stewardship choices and policy decisions. It is their job to be educated on issues within the city, and to generally steer things in some combination of the best direction and the direction the voters want to go. There role is strictly non-executive.

        They hire a city manager to fill essentially the role of a CEO or President. The CEO’s role (by name, even) is to execute and implement the decisions of the board. The board butts out, and the CEO builds his management team to do all of the day to day things that need to occur.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Sometimes “reforms” outlive their own reforminess (to coin a word), and become the “bad old way” of doing things.

      Are any of y’all familiar with the “city commission” form? That came out of that same period of our history.

      That’s what we had when I lived and worked in Jackson, TN. Here’s how it worked: There were three commission members — the mayor, and two others. They performed both legislative and executive functions, essentially running the city as a triumvirate.

      Aside from the three of them making all the legislative decisions, they divided the executive functions this way: The mayor was over the police and fire and public safety in general, another commissioner was over the city school system, and the third was over the public utility department.

      The fact is, those three guys did a pretty good job of running the city. But we advocated for a mayor-council form for a couple of reasons. One, the fact that the commissioners were always white guys (actually, the same three white guys the whole nearly 10 years we were there). Second, it was the opposite of transparent government. Tennessee had possibly the best Sunshine Law in the country. Public bodies could do almost nothing outside of the public view (none of these “executive sessions” so common here). There had to be adequate public notice of all formal meetings, and the meetings were always open.

      But any time two of these guys ran into each other in the hallway, they constituted a majority of the governing body. So it was very easy for them to go into a meeting with the necessary votes lined up.

      The mayor was a great student of local government. He gave a great talk every year to the Leadership Jackson group (which I chaired one year) about the history of local governments going back to England in the Middle Ages. And he was able to present a very able defense of the commission form as a “reform.”

      But by the 70s and 80s, it was obviously an archaic way to run things.

      Anyway, not long after I left, Jackson switched to mayor-council. Not being there, I can’t tell you how that worked out…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        It’s been so long, I’m not sure now, but the mayor probably used the same boogeyman to scare people away from change there that opponents of strong mayor do here — “If we change to that other form, a Boss Tweed will be running our city!” Only in West Tennessee, it probably would have been Boss Crump.

        1. Matt Bohn

          How about Richard Daley, (both of them,) Kwame Kilpatrick, Marion Berry, just off the top of my head for bogeymen.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Absolutely. Democracy is messy, and the people often make bad decisions.

            But there’s also Mayor-for-Life Joe Riley, who goes a long way toward affirming my faith in the system…

    3. Ralph Hightower

      I am not a resident of Greenville, so I don’t follow the news happening in the Upstate, plus the Greenville newspaper has a “paywall” to read their news. I don’t know if Greenville’s council is as divided as Columbia’s or not. On the other side, Charleston has the strong mayor system and that apparently works just as well. Joe has been mayor of Charleston for almost as long as Bob has been mayor of Columbia.

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    For every Mayor Daley, there is a Jane Byrne or Michael Bilandic. Folks don’t vote so smart around here anyway, although the Columbia state senators and representatives are among the best in state government, so….but, E.W.

  7. Ralph Hightower

    Teresa Wilson pretty much took the sails from Mayor Steve when she said “I run this city” regarding Mayor Steve’s proposal to ban non-law enforcement personnel from crime scenes died a flaming death at a council meeting in regards to the recent arrest of NAACP South Carolina Chapter President, Loonie Randolf.

  8. Silence

    looks like Mayor Benjamin is going to try to ram the strong mayor stuff through council just like he did the Bull Street proposal – minimal public discussion, no time for opposition to rally, just a quick hearing and council vote right afterwards.

    1. Mark Stewart

      The residents of Columbia should vote on the structure of government that they are going to live under. The weak mayor structure was a flawed compromise to an earlier social structure’s failings.

      1. Silence

        I think that we’ll have to vote on it, but the mayor’s gonna try to speed the vote through council calling for a referendum.


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